Walter Benjamin

On Reading - fallen - photo by Andy Chittock 2014

I have come across his name before, though I can’t remember the context. Was it to do with fairy tales? Perhaps. Michael Rosen made a programme about him and it was aired yesterday on Radio 4 Extra. He used to give broadcasts to children. He took his own life in the end fearing he would never escape the Gestapo. A woman tells Rosen that she has one of his quotes tattooed on her arm. Words on the skin. Embedded. Indelible. I think of Hetain Patel. Text like lace etched into his skin. What was the quote? I look him up on the internet. Was it ‘The work of memory collapses time?’ Possibly. I like it anyway. I will read his essays. This is how listening works – it takes you somewhere else into other encounters. A sad man, a scared man, a vulnerable man, certainly beautiful.

Walking down the stairs at 5.00am I pass a couple coming up. They are dressed for Halloween. He in a bowler hat and Charlie Chaplin-esque suit, she in a long black lace dress. Both their faces are painted white with kohl-drawn circles around their eyes, daisy-like. On the promenade students lolled, make-up now running.

There was another Emma, not just the fictional one in the song. A sister. Red hair and stunning blue eyes. We spoke only once. She talked of being disappointed. No, not exactly talked of but implied. She didn’t feel good enough. That much I sensed. And yet, what a beauty. What a vivid girl. Like Benjamin she also took her life. She wasn’t escaping from the Nazis but from herself. That not good enough self. The failing self. In his CD The Poetry of Self-Compassion David Whyte talks about how the soul doesn’t care whether we fail or succeed, that it only cares whether the failure is our failure, whether it is authentic, truly ours. If so, the soul is satisfied, he says. You do not have to be good, writes Mary Oliver. You did not have to be like your other sisters, Emma. You just had to be you in all your beauty and chaos. You did not have throw yourself in front of that train in Didcot. You did not. I still see your eyes, though only I met you once. Rest in peace.

Tomorrow I go to Cornwall. I exchange one tide for another. It will be good to return. Though the pull is strong. I give myself to the experience, the journey. May there be tea.


By Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.